It does not take much to turn a creative environment into a conforming one. The following video highlights how an assignment yields different results – in terms of frequency of creative outputs – due to the prompt attached to it. The first prompt offers a point for painting the picture the right way and the second simply asks the student to complete the painting.
While the results of a painting project might not be of the utmost importance – depending on who you ask! – the implications are far deeper. What these students have demonstrated is the conforming effect of grading. I’ll be the first one to state that at times we do want students to arrive at the same answer. A group of students solving arithmetic problems should be striving to find the same right answer. This is not true at all times. As shown above, the richness of the paintings from the non-graded assignment was far greater than the graded one. This begs the question, with the entire educational system based on the receive a point/grade standard, how is this richness in creativity supposed to exist? You may have a teacher in the classroom asking, even begging, for creativity from their students but that classroom work still leads to a grade. Regardless of the teachers efforts, the conforming environment still looms. This applies to more than just the arts or “creative classes”. It applies to every aspect of learning. In science one creates a hypothesis and then tests this hypothesis. This process constantly leads to “failures”, but these “failures” are the stepping stones to finding the answer. Can you imagine trying to behave in that manner with grades attached to everything you do? A science teacher can change how the grade structure works and only grade on the adherence to the scientific process. If every student follows the process, then they would all receive A’s, what then is the point of grading? Give students grades based on the logic behind their question? How logical was flying before the Wright Brothers took flight? If a student is reprimanded for asking a question that seems to far-fetched according to the teacher, then how is that any less limiting than punishing a student for running into “failure” while testing their hypothesis? So a teacher would be stuck to assigning everyone with an A and then I must ask what is the point?
There is a place for using a point system in helping to identify weak points in linear thought processes. Assigning point totals to a math problem set can help show patterns in where a student needs additional help. In this case it is used as a tracking tool rather than a valuation tool. A point system can exist within a broader system that simply tracks students work to provide insight. This broader system can use the prompt “finish the painting” instead of “paint the right picture”. Using the point system to track instead of evaluate, empowers students to take risks in their learning objective. A student would not feel the pressure to preserve a GPA and avoid a class, if there was no GPA to preserve.
I’ll leave you with this anecdote. Two Harvard business school students submitted a marketing proposal for delivering packages. They received a C for their work. Now according to the grading system this idea was not a good one and these students should abandon their work. They did not. Instead of giving up the idea because of their grade, they founded the company anyway. The company they founded is FedEx. Imagine what we have lost due to students receiving poor grades…